The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York (Met) will have a team of four experts in charge of tracing the origin of suspicious pieces, that is, from looting or plundering. The pressure of foreign governments and judicial proceedings against the illegal trafficking of works of art have pushed the museum to a revision of its collections, which have been underway for some time in a global context of critical rereading of history: the last blows of decolonization are embodied today in the return journey of marbles, craters or bronzes to the place from which they were torn off. The creation of the team of trackers, a complementary effort to the work of the museum's curators and researchers for decades, is due in part to disputes such as the one the institution maintains with Cambodia. In short, it is a question of redefining the concept of cultural property and of doing so, for the first time, in a systematic way.
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"With the emergence of new information and the changing climate around cultural property, we must be proactive and deliberate in our approach, and devote the necessary resources and attention to this work. The initiatives we are undertaking, driven by the guiding principles of research, transparency and collaboration, chart the way forward in this complex territory and signal to the world that we are committed to being an engaged and proactive participant in ongoing discussions, as well as an exceptional place to meet and learn about the world's cultures." explains to EL PAÍS Max Hollein, director of the Met, while underlining the preeminence of the institution in global culture. "As the guardian of nearly 1.5 million works of art from more than 5,000 years of human creativity, and as a leading voice on art and cultural heritage, it is critical that the museum engages intensely on this issue," adds Hollein.
In a letter to staff, and in an article posted on the museum's website under the title Reflections on the Met's Collection and Cultural Property, Hollein raised in early May the need to respond to growing scrutiny over the funds. The discussion about the critical mission of museums was launched.
ICYMI: Last week we returned two ancient sculptures that were looted during the Gulf War to the people of Iraq. "We will not allow New York City to be a safe harbor for stolen cultural artifacts." - D.A. Bragg. Learn more in @artnews: https://t.co/zW45ESugeq
— Alvin Bragg (@ManhattanDA) May 22, 2023
The Met is not the only museum immersed in this debate, which is not new either. Everlasting demands, such as that of Greece to repatriate the Parthenon marbles from the United Kingdom or the recent return to Nigeria of bronzes from Benin, define an agitated panorama, increasingly militant on the part of aggrieved countries that believe their heritage has been diminished. Suspicions about a possible plundering, or lucrative smuggling, tarnish the presence in many museums of works from other latitudes and other eras. In addition to an academic review, it also obeys, in many cases, a legal imperative, as recalled by the Manhattan prosecutor's office and its tireless search for stolen art.
The Manhattan district attorney's office has seized dozens of antiquities from his funds to return them to Turkey, Egypt and Italy, among others. In 2008, the Met returned to Italy the famous crater of Euphronius, acquired in 1972 for one million dollars. Last year, it returned 45 objects to various countries, trying to counter criticism that it had not acted with sufficient diligence. "Despite the urgency that the media environment may suggest, we must be diligent, thoughtful and fair in our assessment of any evidence that comes our way," Hollein said in the article. "We're committed to getting it right, and equally committed to taking the time to do it."
Pieces made in North, Central and South America thousands of years before European colonization, exhibited at the Met.THE MET
Just a few days ago, the prosecution announced the return to Iraq of two pieces, looted from the ancient city of Uruk during the Gulf War. One of them, a Sumerian figure of an alabaster bull, belonged to Shelby White, a board member of the Met; the other, to an antiquities dealer. "We will not allow New York City to be a safe harbor for stolen cultural objects," current Manhattan U.S. Attorney Alvin Bragg tweeted. Two months earlier, in March, some thirty works also belonging to White and valued at 20 million dollars were returned to Greece.
The prosecution's Antiquities Trafficking unit, led by tireless hound Matthew Bogdanos, has been at full expense in recent months. In September, 27 items valued at more than $13 million were seized, including a valuable Greek kylix. In March, he seized a headless bronze statue of Roman Emperor Septimius Severus, valued at A.D. 225 million. He had presided over the museum's Greek and Roman galleries for years.
Collaboration with the prosecutor's office
The apparent urgency of the Met in tracing the origin of some pieces is not motivated however by judicial action, according to its director. "We have a constant dialogue and sometimes we face trials we haven't seen before, which keeps us moving," Hollein explains. "There is collaboration. I don't think our efforts are opposed to those of the district attorney or that we should step forward because they did."
Pacific Islands Cultures Room.THE MET
Professor Elizabeth Marlowe, director of the museum studies program at Colgate University, believes that the clamor of public opinion and the pressure of the prosecution have exerted a clear pressure. "I think the Met is finally accepting that, in recent years, public opinion has fully opted for restitution in cases of clear crime. In recent years as well, the Manhattan District Attorney's Office has been very proactive in cases of looted works of art and is not afraid to pursue the most precious assets of the city's most important cultural institution."
Marlowe cites two cases, those of Khmer works from Cambodia and bronzes from Benin, as milestones of the review. "Scholars and journalists have done important work to uncover stories such as the scandalous looting of Cambodian temples by Douglas Latchford [indicted in 2019 in New York for falsifying the origin of pieces, he died the following year]. Social media has played a key role in keeping public attention on this issue and on cases such as the Benin bronzes. The Met's African galleries are currently closed, and are being reinstalled for the first time in more than 30 years. Are they going to create a new facility around their collection of 160 Benin bronzes, or are they going to return them to Nigeria, as the Smithsonian and the German state museums and many other institutions have done? Time will tell."
Indeed, the three galleries of African art, as well as those of ancient American art and ocean art, have temporarily closed for a "renovation project that will review these collections for a new generation of visitors," their website says. On the bronzes of Benin, the Met has already taken some steps, returning at the beginning of the year three pieces to Lagos, within the framework of a collaboration with the Ministry of Culture of Nigeria, similar to that established with Sicily or Greece, in this case through a historic agreement: the precious collection of 161 pieces of Cycladic art by the collector Leonard Stern, which will be exhibited at the Met but is owned by Greece. The 15 most important pieces from the collection treasured by Stern for more than 40 years can be seen until October at the Museum of Cycladic Art in Athens in an exhibition with a revealing title: Returning Home. Cycladic treasures on your return journey. In January, they will be hosted by the Met for 25 years, although the title to Greece remains. Cultural diplomacy is making its way, as an alternative to litigation and lawsuits. Two exhibitions opening in July, one on the origins of Buddhist art in India and the other on Pueblo pottery, curated by natives of that original tribe, confirm the path of collaboration.
African works of the Met. THE MET
In addition to the purification of responsibilities for stolen or trafficked objects, a definition of the concept of cultural property in accordance with the times is on the table, a debate not alien to the critical review of history. This involves demonstrating that the works have not been obtained by exploiting societies burdened by poverty, colonialism, war or political instability: a fair art, as a cultural correlate of fair trade in developing countries. The Met focuses on objects acquired between 1970 and 1990, in which traceability was very lax. The start date in 1970 is not a theoretical framework, since it corresponds to a UNESCO treaty that aimed to end the illicit trade in antiquities and whose compliance has been irregular, incomplete.
Most of the pieces that Cambodia claims from the Met left the country in the seventies, when political instability and the Khmer genocide prevented channels of dialogue. Phnom Penh claims at least 45 objects allegedly stolen from sites at that time, during which other countries culminated decolonization processes that also favored the dispersion of artistic works. The Met has removed several objects from the room dedicated to Khmer art, but has refused to show documents that would support – or contradict – its legitimate acquisition and instead asks its interlocutor for evidence to support its claim. The dispute with Phnom Penh continues.
Not unrelated to the debate, a further factor—the impossible identity in an era defined by discourses and policies of self-identification—adds fuel to the equation. "We live in an age," Hollein notes in the article, "in which the idea of a cosmopolitan and global society is questioned, and some more nationalistic voices embrace cultural objects less as ambassadors of a people than as proofs of national identity." There are many elements at stake when undertaking a critical rereading of museums, to put an end to the old museography, inherited almost unchanged from the great cultural expeditions of the nineteenth century. To formulate, in short, a new definition of museum, beyond that of container that stores objects. "The Met aims to share and contextualize [the works] so that people understand more about them," Hollein writes. No room for female suspects.
The Nazi plundering and the history of two Murillo's Meadows Museum
A separate chapter in the history of plunder deserves the Nazi plundering of works of art. Like George Clooney's The Monuments Men, teams of researchers and experts have tracked and are tracking museums and private collections in pursuit of stolen heritage. Amanda Dotseth, director of the Meadows Museum in Dallas, knows this well. "We had a case with two paintings by Murillo, Santa Justa and Santa Rufina, bought by Algur H. Meadows in the sixties, and we discovered that they had been seized by the Nazis from the Rothschild family in France. We researched and published it until we found evidence that these two works had been returned to their owners before we acquired them and incorporated them into the Meadows." The work of previous investigation prevented any subsequent shock, the judicial claim of the legitimate owners. Dotseth, who this week received the X Bernardo de Gálvez Prize in Madrid, defends deepening the scrutiny. "I agree that we must follow the best practices of both the American Alliance of Museums (AAM) and the Association of Art Museum Directors (AAMD), of which we are a part. At the Meadows Museum we follow the so-called due diligence, the investigation of the provenance of the acquisitions. In the event that we find that a work already in our collection has a dubious origin, we delve into it. You always have to keep investigating the history of the origins of a work, as much as its modern history." The fact that it is a university museum, attached to the Southern Methodist University, "makes us dedicate ourselves to research and to publish on the works that make it up, sharing it with the academic and museum community."
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